Anyone who thinks Shakespeare has to be endured instead of enjoyed won’t be swayed by Titus, director Julie Taymor’s audacious reimagining of the historical tragedy Titus Andronicus. Taymor, the acclaimed avant-garde theater director who found mainstream fame with The Lion King, has turned one of William Shakespeare’s least-acclaimed plays into a postmodern spectacle.
It’s interesting that Taymor has chosen to tell her story not so much through Shakespeare’s words (her script trims the play down considerably) but visually. Those visuals are often remarkable — and during the three hours of Titus, she regularly fills the screen with a phantasmagoria of epic proportions.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sought to bring back the Roman Empire with himself as the all-powerful Caesar, and Taymor references him with sets and costumes that blend fascist grandeur with classical remnants (like a coliseum, aqueducts, gladiator armor). So when the late emperor’s sons, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and Bassianus (James Frain), are vying for power, they ride through the ancient-modern streets in cars using loudspeakers like pleading political candidates.
These machinations are contrasted sharply with the brute force exerted by the empire’s most revered soldier, Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), who has captured queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange), and proceeds to kill her eldest son despite her impassioned pleas.
But the status quo is abruptly disrupted when — through a series of fatally bad choices — the petulant dandy Saturninus is appointed emperor and takes Tamora as his bride. As nearly every character proceeds to swear vengeance on someone else, Titus unfurls as a bloody game of one-upmanship.
Although the film is aggressively artificial and mannered, the strongest performances are naturalistic and come via characters who can look beyond the simplistic eye-for-an-eye revenge of clan warfare. The charismatic Harry Lennix, as Tamora’s Moor companion, is a gleeful incarnation of chaos, the interloper as imp.
Colm Feore, as Titus’ level-headed brother, is the film’s moral anchor. The simple horror he expresses as he spies his mutilated niece, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), says more than all of Taymor’s bombast, and is a potent reminder that one of Shakespeare’s strengths is in pinpointing the particular anguish of an individual whom others might see as just a face in the crowd.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.